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A Fireside Chat with Branford Marsalis

AAJ Staff By

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The writers talk about John Coltrane as a spiritual guru. He was spiritual. My reverend is spiritual, but he can't play the saxophone.
A Love Supreme is a psalm of hope, that audibly embodied the black struggle. A Love Supreme merits a universal reverence as a suite of such operatic breadth, it is rarely performed live. Branford Marsalis is not the first Marsalis to perform "A Love Supreme" on record. That distinction belongs to brother Wynton. Branford is blunt, often brutal in his matter-of-fact fidelity. And he pulls no punches here.

All About Jazz: How important is John Coltrane?

Branford Marsalis: He's important. But I view him more as one of the many greats who extended the tradition. I think some people tend to think that he reinvented the tradition. I've never agreed with that. There are a couple of interviews that you can find online of him growing up and it's clear that he had very specific and profound influences as a young person. And his intent was never to reinvent the music. He did the same homework that a lot of other people did. It's just that it was his destiny to be one of the few that could extend it.

AAJ: Jazz places a considerable amount of weight on his relevance.

BM: I understand why they do that with Miles. Jazz fans love Miles and I love him for a myriad of reasons, but the overviews are always too simplistic.

The one time that I played with Miles, I spent a part of the time talking about Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry and he was immensely knowledgeable about the two. When you start to get into this cult of personality shit, all they talk about is that he was cool and he cursed people out and smoked cigarettes and had a bunch of chicks. If you work for Time and that is the only way you can reference the music, OK. But in jazz, we need to get away from that cult of personality shit and deal with the music even though it might decrease the readership a little bit. So when people talk about Trane, they need to talk about Trane in a musical fashion, rather than these catch phrases like "spirituality" and "Eastern religion." Like the sum total of his experience can be summarized in a Buddhist chant.

They just discount 25 or 30 years of scholarship. There is an interview where he talked about how he listened to Coleman Hawkins and how he was a big Johnny Hodges fan and then from Johnny Hodges he went to Bird. They just dismiss 25 years of scholarship. The jazz schools teach the Atlantic Records years - all the stuff that can be coda-fied - "Giant Steps," "Countdown," and "Central Park West." The writers talk about John Coltrane as a spiritual guru. He was spiritual. My reverend is spiritual, but he can't play the saxophone. As a student of the music, you just have to look beyond that and do your own research.

AAJ: In your research, what did you find?

BM: Musicians propagate it. It is the same thing you hear all the time. But when you look at it, you can tell that John Coltrane was a serious student of music. He was always stretching, always learning, always trying to get things, always working on things. He was influenced by the same guys that Charlie Parker was influenced by the same guys that everybody else was influenced by. It just came out a different way. He went through this intense theory period, which was the Atlantic Records years. He came out on the other side of it, which was the Impulse! stuff and the Impulse! stuff is ironic.

Harmonically, the Impulse! records are infinitely simpler in harmonic structure than the Atlantic records. But you listen to all the saxophone players that play, they all embrace the Atlantic records and ignore the Impulse! records. If that kind of extensive harmonic knowledge is so valuable, why can't people play "A Love Supreme?"

Why can't they play "Kulu Se Mama?" Why can't they play "Miles' Mode?" That's the thing that Coltrane touched on. He was always doing work, but when he found the right band, he worked on all the stuff that he had worked on prior - his understanding of the blues, his understanding of the black church, his understanding of the essence and spirituality of people came into his music. That band was the best at interpreting the music he wanted to play. He searched around for the right guys. When you listen to the record Olé Coltrane , there are tracks on there when Jimmy Garrison wasn't playing. One time it was Art Davis and another song, Reggie Workman was playing with him. He found the guys he wanted and once you find them, you keep them. They are the guys that are going to allow him to experiment with the music in ways that other guys wouldn't.

AAJ: Does that hold true for your own quartet?

BM: Absolutely. It is the same thing that Ron, Tony, Herbie, and Wayne gave Miles. That band lasted almost as long as the Coltrane band with Elvin, McCoy, and Jimmy. "Tain" and I just have this musical relationship that is going to survive everything. He is the embodiment of that spirit to me. He just has all of this marvelous natural ability. He is a student of the music. I know how to make him play his best and he knows how to make me play my best.


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